Jess Mills has earned her nightworld stripes, clocking up countless hours in nightclubs and raves around the world ever since she first discovered the delights of smoky, sweaty clubs in the heady garage times of the late '90s. The North Londoner, who scored a top 40 hit with Breakage on 'Fighting Fire', and who has just returned from a stint on tour with Leftfield, was a self-confessed 'teenage garage head' criss-crossing London's nocturnal hotspots with rave spar Niomi McLean-Daley, aka Ms Dynamite.
Mills and Ms Dynamite would go to all the big garage raves, and all the dingy, divey ones, in the days before the latter started the journey that culminated in her 2002 Mercury Music Prize win with 'A Little Deeper'. Despite the garage foundation, Mills was always in possession of a multi-musical mind: she'd be out till dawn raving to EZ or Karl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown, then getting ready for school the next morning with The Smiths or Fleetwood Mac or old Motown songs blaring out of her bedroom stereo.
It's a musical mix that shaped her, and that gave a structure – and stories – for the enigmatic, pressure cooker-powerful songs that got her signed to Island last year. Since then she's been working on her forthcoming album with a panoply of talented producers including Liam Howe, Louis Slipperz, and old friends Zero 7 and not to mention the ongoing production relationship with hyper-talented dubstep producer James 'Breakage' Boyle.
Jess Mills met Breakage whilst they were both on tour with Leftfield. Breakage was supporting the shows, which replayed Leftfield's 1995 classic 'Leftism', and they bonded over a love of Radiohead and old 1970s records. During tour downtime they hung out and made music together in his south London studio, in a submarine-style complex which doubles as a nexus of UK dance music as Chase and Status, Shy FX, Nero and Caspa also have studios here.
They drew up a widescreen list of reference points for the record that included The Cure, Portishead, Massive Attack and Radiohead – but knew from the start that Mill's songs would inevitably, absolutely, contain two feelings any seasoned club kid would understand on a cellular level: a sense of freedom and strong dose of euphoria.
"I totally get the frenetic madness of raving and I wanted to apply that euphoric vibe to the songs – even though they're not out and out clubtracks. The goal for me is to lace that spirit of electronic music into traditional songs, while applying the more emotive elements of music I've loved all my life to create something that could hopefully resonate with people on lots of different levels."
One thing Mills knows a lot about is Ibiza. She goes every year, making the most of the music, the beach life and bohemian lifestyle - all underpinned by a healthy appreciation for the Island's dark underbelly (though not the version of events conjured up by Ibiza Uncovered). And there's another aspect of Mill's background that's had a major impact on her music, and the songs she writes: she's been going to festivals since the age of nine, when her entire family would up descend on Glastonbury with her parent's friends.
"When we were really young we'd eat our weight in cinnamon doughnuts and hang out in the circus and cabaret tents. Suddenly you're a bit older and you're up at the stone circle, fully popped, seeing some of your favourite bands and spiralling round the dance village. There is so much about the total free spiritedness and unpredictability of festival culture that I love so much. Ibiza definitely has that too. I've had some of the best times of my life split between the two."
Her family curated her musical talents from the word go. She's the second youngest of five children who grew up in Kentish Town. Her Dad who plays classical clarinet and is a classical music buff, would take his musically minded daughter to symphonies at the Wigmore Hall. They'd sit at home and listen to sonatas and Mills observed how her Dad couldn't even talk about certain operas without getting emotional. It was due to him that she started playing classical piano from the age of 6 and down to her Mum's record collection that was more likely to contain The Kinks and The Hollies than Sebelius, that Mills' found a long lasting appreciation for Joni Mitchell. "On a lyrical level she is able to sculpt emotive meaning in so few words. Sometimes it felt like she could say more in three words than any other songwriter I'd ever heard. Not at all generic; somehow so personal and universal all at once".
At 19, Mills left town for a six month stint travelling round the world. She and her friends meant to stop off in LA but ended up falling into a 'slightly mad world', staying in a gutter motel on Sunset which rented rooms by the hour, and made the most of their time there, spending endless nights in hip hop clubs and getting to grip with the city's widescreen musical world.
Back in the UK, she moved to Brighton to study Social Anthropology and Philosophy, but still kept her hand in musically, now starting to turn her colourful life experiences into music of her own. She hooked up with Dom from The Nextmen, and put out a sunshiny, soulful, lo-fi 7" titled Seize The Day, before starting His Girl Friday with Adam Midgely and putting out The Patchwork EP. Their cover of MGMT's 'Kids' was clocking up 4,000 plays a day back when MySpace ruled the ether, catapulting them from a few hundred plays to 300,000 plays of that song in a few months.
Jess Mills makes music that connects on an emotional level. Her debut album is taking shape and she'll be spending the next few months sculpting and perfecting the powerful raw material into songs that will undoubtedly propel her into the mainstream. First single Vultures is a twilight-driven, breakbeat hallelujah that scatters light and shade across a sonic landscape that Woon or Blake would instantly recognise, informed as it is by everything that has happened in UK nightclubs over the last decade – and by the real-life days that follow those escapist nights. It's worth noting that she wrote it, as she tends to write, in one go. Every line is ready to flow, every line is written as it first appears. She's taken on board the idea that you should only put pen to paper when you're full to brimming with what you want to talk about - or as she says, that the songs should be firmly positioned between your heart, the tip of your tongue and your fingertips.
And when you strip everything else away, the bassline madness and the adventures and the cool musical hook-ups, Jess Mills is all about songs. Songs that you could read off paper, songs that don't even need music, songs that provide the subconscious landscape of a life lived to the fullest.